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The College of Southern Maryland’s VEX Robotics Challenge will showcase 30 middle and high school teams from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties to compete for the opportunity to go to the VEX World Championships in Anaheim, Calif., in April.

Before beginning the daylong competition Feb. 16, students will have an opportunity to hear about cutting-edge robotics research and development from Michael J. Zeher, a member of the senior technical staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he is the section supervisor for robotics and a project manager for the Revolutionizing Prosthetics and the Advanced EOD Robotic System programs.

Robotic arms that have independent mobility and function through thought, such as a prosthetic arm recently featured on the news program “60 Minutes,” are among the projects Zeher works on.

Prior to joining APL in 2008, Zeher worked as a technical manager, product technologist, systems engineer and software developer for GE Aviation, Smiths Aerospace and Fairchild Space and Defense.

Some of his work includes the development of data management and communications products for the NASA Hubble Space Telescope and Small Explorer programs, the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Army Bradley Tank and the U.S. Naval Air Fleet.

Zeher holds a bachelor’s in electronic engineering from Capitol College and a master’s in computer science from Johns Hopkins University.

He is the recipient of the 2011 Department of Defense Systems Engineering Top 5 Programs Award for the AEODRS program.

Zeher also is president of Cornerstone Educational Services Inc., a nonprofit corporation that sponsors Cornerstone Academy, a Maryland-approved private school dedicated to the education of children with learning differences. He is currently training for his third triathlon race.

VEX Robotics League’s inaugural season

This will be the first championship competition for the new Southern Maryland VEX Robotics League, which is sponsored by CSM.

The VEX game is called “Sack Attack” and requires robots to pick up bean bags and score them in goals.

“By creating the league, we are able to offer more play opportunities for Southern Maryland teams than in the past,” said CSM industrial studies professor Bernice Brezina, robotics coordinator. “Students are challenging themselves to come back each month with better robot designs and more advanced programming. I hope we may improve how we do this each year as we work with the STEM coordinators, teachers, mentors and volunteers again and continue to offer robotics challenges for students of all ages, including the collegiate level. We just opened a new robotics lab at the La Plata campus as we continue to grow.”

Since the season began in September, the 32 registered teams have worked with faculty advisers and mentors in their schools and competed in ranking sessions held at schools in Southern Maryland.

Following the final ranking session Feb. 2, the teams will play in elimination rounds in the league championship Feb. 16.

Final team rankings will determine the alliance selection order and elimination bracket.

Currently, the top three teams represent each county, with La Plata’s Angle Warriors in the lead.

“CSM relies on the support of sponsors and many volunteers to provide these exciting robotics programs to the students in our community. At the same time, schools need funding for their teams,” Brezina said in a news release.

CSM offsets some of the costs to schools by providing the VEX goal and game objects kits, league coordination and registration fees.

Middle school teams are interested in forming VEX robotics teams, and high schools that initially had one team are now expanding to two, three and even four teams, Brezina said, adding that each VEX robot team can require more than $1,000 in equipment and parts to build a competitive robot.

“A competition team will require programming software, spare tools, batteries, metals, electronics and mechanical parts — the costs add up quickly. Besides money, schools are in need of mentors such as engineers and programmers with expertise in mechanical design, electronics and C programming,” she said.

The Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division provided equipment and engineer mentors to start new middle school teams in Charles County this year.

NAVEODTECHDIV Technical Projects Manager and Engineer Byron Brezina, the husband of Bernice Brezina, worked with Monique Wilson, STEM coordinator of Charles County schools, to match mentors with schools and provide the equipment.

Sponsors for the Southern Maryland VEX Robotics League include The CSM Foundation and the Charles County Technology Council.

“All the teams are stepping up their game with the best robots I’ve seen coming from Southern Maryland,” Bernice Brezina said of the ranking session competitions. “The league championship is going to showcase the hard work and dedication that these students bring to this competition.”

“What is really exciting is how efforts such as robotics competitions are meeting requests from the community to grow a pipeline for engineers. What began as the CSM Robotics Challenge with two high school teams in 2006 has grown to robotics competitions from elementary to the collegiate level, hundreds of teams and thousands of students,” she added.

For information on sponsorship opportunities, go to www.csmd.edu/Foundation/ or contact CSM Development Director Martina Arnold at MArnold2@csmd.edu or 301-934-7649.

For information on CSM robotics programs for elementary, middle and high school, and collegiate levels, go to www.csmd.edu/stem/.

To view advances in robotic limbs featured on “60 Minutes,” go to www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50137987n.